The “three Rs,” reading, writing and arithmetic, still occupy a central role in today’s discussions of what schools should do. A superintendent’s report from the Idaho frontier of the 1870s gives a small glimpse of what education devoted to the three Rs looked like.
According to Territorial Superintendent of Public Instruction Joseph Perrault, for the 1877-78 school year the Boise school district had an average daily attendance of 70. The district contained 323 people of school age, defined as 5 years to 18 years. According to these numbers, about 21 per cent of the children were present at the fount of learning on a typical school day. And there were not many school days in the year: in Ada County, school sessions ran from three to six months, with the average school term lasting less than five months. In eastern Idaho, which had been settled longer and was less socially diverse, average daily attendance was a little above 60 per cent of the maximum, with school terms of six months.
Since public education focused on elementary skills and only persisted into high school-level subjects depending on student interest and the availability of texts, attendance by people in their elder teenage years would have been likely to fade. Superintendent Perrault, like his modern counterparts, had more success measuring the resources devoted to education than appraising its results. National statistics of basic literacy for that era showed rates of 91 to 94% literacy for people of European descent.
Schools in Idaho had a humble beginning, but only fifteen years after the territory was created, the citizens of Ada County had organized 29 school districts. Out of Idaho’s clapboard frontier schools came a generation of people that helped make the U.S.A. the world’s industrial leader and was arguably the greatest consumer of printed literature in American history.

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